In one of my first campaigns, set in a grim-dark science fiction setting, I effectively became a god. My character was statistically incapable of failing any charisma checks, and he galavanted across space, breaking lore and logic with a silver tongue that allowed him to do anything, say anything, and get away with anything.
While some of you may be shaking your heads and muttering to yourself about the dangers of homebrew, everything I did came directly from the rulebook. Additionally, while this was a different system than D&D, D&D is definitely not immune to this form of power creep. As splat books are published and new magic items and feats are produced, potential for power leveling drastically increases. Look no further than Pun-Pun, a level 1 kobold demi-god with infinite power. While reaching divinity at Level 1 requires fudging the rules in a homebrew way, you can also reach this level of power at level 14 using Polymorph, which is absolutely street legal. Effectively, Pun-Pun demonstrates that no systems are safe. Given the near constant publication of splat books, power creep will happen, and the rules won’t save you.
Here’s an important thing to understand about this level of power creep. Even when my player character was effectively a god, I was not having fun. In many ways, TTRPGs rely on how a player can do almost anything, but they need to work for it. For many players, if you take away the difficulty, you take away the fun.
Solving the problem
Therefore, talk to your players. Establish what each of them are interested in and enjoy. Once you establish a style of play that all of your players will enjoy, stick to it. Don’t allow a player to stray from this golden path. In order to keep everyone having fun, learn to say no.
If most of your players like working slowly towards their goal, and one player tries to rules lawyer their way into being a deity, say no. Invoke the rule of fun (GM has last say on everything), and strike down the power creep. Protect the fun of the game.
Many of my friends who GM feel uncomfortable saying no because they don’t like disappointing players or confrontation. They feel like by turning down a single player’s request, they’re decreasing the amount of fun that player is having in the game. This can be especially hard when you’re playing with friends. However, remember that a single person’s fun does not determine whether or not a campaign is an enjoyable experience. A campaign is fun when every single player is invested and engaged (this includes you, the GM). When these situations come up, it’s important to protect the fun for other players; say no.
Obviously this is easier said than done; saying no can still be difficult. There are two major risks: players feel like you’re playing favorites, and players will feel like they’ve wasted their time. I’ve found that I’ve respected GMs much more when they turn down my ideas when they follow these steps:
For avoiding favorites:
- Provide a principle behind your decision (If I gave this magic item to you, it would make you significantly more powerful than the rest of the party. I would need to balance the combat to your power level, and every one else would feel like glass cannons without the gun powder.)
- Be consistent. Once you’ve said no once based on a principle, write that principle down. Whenever another player comes to you with an idea or attempts something within the campaign, check the principles you’ve used for rulings so far. Make your decisions based on what you’ve said before.
- If you do happen to allow something through that feels closely related to a prior “No”, discuss that decision with the player you previously turned down. Clarify why this “Yes” differed from your past “No.” It could be based on timing in the campaign, a less drastic increase in power, or something else. If you feel as if you can’t easily explain the difference between the “Yes” and “No” to this player, reconsider your decision. Are they that different? Should you be allowing this new behavior?
To avoid the feeling of wasted time:
- When you notice a player working towards something, ask them what exactly their goal is. If their goal feels like something you would not want them to obtain, have that conversation with them right away. The earlier, the better! This will stop them from investing playtime into a goal you would have to say no to.
- Keep up to date with the status and ambitions of your players’ characters, Often times a player can decide to switch what they want in between sessions. Consistently keeping up to date with your player’s goals will let you stay out in front of any attempted power creep.
- If you are not able to catch an endeavor for an overpowered item or feature ahead of time, explain to your player why you are saying no. Then, depending on the amount of time they put into it, try to arrange a compromise. While they may not be able to have the sentient sword with +10 damage they wanted, maybe they would still be happy with a +1 magic sword with a backstory that you can incorporate into the main campaign.
There are more intricacies in saying no, but these two areas are the major ones that I’ve encountered as a player. Whenever my GM has said no and handled the situation well, I’ve gained respect for them. Saying no may be hard (after all, it’s confrontation, and few people like confrontation), but it’s an important tool in a GM’s toolkit when it comes to making sure everyone is having a fun time.